“I see dead people.”

26 02 2014

“When I speak with [Al] Filreis [of the University of Pennsylvania], a charismatic bearded professor, he complains that people criticize MOOCs without differentiating between those that are done well and those that are not. He is sitting at a computer and clicks between discussion boards, Facebook posts, and live “office hour” chats led by teaching assistants who discuss poems in the video lectures (the TAs have become ModPo celebrities, too).”

- Laura Pappano, “How colleges are finding tomorrow’s prodigies,” Christian Science Monitor, February 23, 2014.

No Al, you’ve got it all wrong. People who criticize MOOCs are perfectly capable of differentiating between MOOCs that are done well from those that aren’t. The problem is that even the best MOOC in the world is nowhere near as good as the average community college course. The reason is obvious: access to the professor.

I’ve gone the rounds with Al (and many other MOOC enthusiasts) on Twitter a few times so I can easily predict the response to this point: People who want to find me can find me in the forums, or in a Google Hangout or through whatever technological doo-dad they’ve invented to stimulate simulated interaction. Unfortunately, for the average student – rather than the prodigies that the Christian Science Monitor (like so many other gullible media outlets) prefers to discuss – they either won’t or can’t make use of that access. In fact, if most students actually did try to make use of that access the technological infrastructure behind the MOOC platform would collapse.

It’s simple math, really. Even superprofessors only have so much time in their days. This way, they can interact with only the brightest, most dedicated students from around the planet. What teacher wouldn’t love this arrangement? All the other students who are left waiting by the wayside. The ones who need lots of help that isn’t available or who need the kind of help that is simply too awkward to be made available over the Internet. Sadly, the Masters of MOOC Creation don’t care because real education is not profitable. Giving people certificates for watching videos and answering multiple choice questions about them (supposedly) is.

While the average community college instructor may not be a superprofessor, at least they’re accessible. That’s why MOOC enthusiasts are continually waging a deliberate campaign to belittle the contributions of non-superprofessors everywhere. This particular example is from the Economist:

Caroline Hoxby, an economist at Stanford University, argues that MOOCs threaten different universities in different ways. Less selective institutions are close substitutes for MOOCs. Course content is often standardised and interaction with professors is limited in order to keep costs down.

Really? I know there are large intro classes in many institutions, but even those professors have TAs and office hours and writing centers and early warning systems if you’re failing the course. And, of course, practically the whole point of the non-vocational aspects of community colleges is to prevent those situations from happening, to make sure that students get a user-friendly introduction to academic life and be a success when they transfer elsewhere. It’s as if all the dedicated teachers who help make that happen are dead to her.

Then there’s this (Thank you, Vanessa), “A Colorado Software Firm Is Programming Your Next Professor:”

“MOOCs and online schools have not fully thrown the student-teacher ratio out the window, but they seem to be heading in that direction. As education costs increase, it’s not unreasonable to think that professors, teachers, adjuncts, and tutors could at least be partially replaced by a $7,000 programmable character who never sleeps or unionizes, or emotionally overreacts to student behavior.”

Jesus, and I get called paranoid and delusional for suggesting that anyone is even contemplating such a thing. Never underestimate how little college administrators don’t know about education. Any university that replaces their professors with a dancing paper clip deserves the fate that awaits it. It’s not that we can’t be replaced by a dancing paper clip. We obviously can. It’s whether or not we SHOULD be replaced by $7000 avatars that is the question. If we’re all dead to them, then this process becomes much easier as students are left with essentially no other choice.

Well, I see dead people. So do students. I only hope that we all don’t end up like Bruce Willis and discover that we’re all dead already.*

* So I spoiled the end of a fifteen year-old movie. Well, I think it’s your fault if you haven’t seen “The Sixth Sense” yet, not mine.





“Piggy in the Middle.”

30 07 2013

“[Frederick] Taylor and [his protégé Carl] Barth interpreted their responsibility as that of introducing certain technological and administrative changes at Watertown Arsenal. In fact they were doing much more than this: they were disrupting an established social system and trying to build a new one. Nothing they did was, in this respect, neutral; nothing was merely technological or administrative.”

- Hugh G.J. Aitken, Scientific Management in Action: Taylorism at Watertown Arsenal, 1908-1915, 1960, p. 135.

The aspect of Taylorism that skilled molders at the Watertown Arsenal objected to most was time studies: “efficiency experts” who stood behind them, measuring the duration of particular aspects of their jobs, and then telling them how to do it better. This led to a very brief strike which actually got Taylorism banned from US government facilities.

Now imagine if that efficiency expert stood not behind those skilled workers, but between them and their work. This is essentially the situation that Lisa Lane describes here:

It’s like making a movie. And I want to be Orson Welles – writer, director, actor. It’s my class. I write it when I create the syllabus and collect the materials. I direct it when I teach and assist students. I act when I’m lecturing or presenting.

But now that we’ve professionalized “instructional design” (and other aspects of education that used to be considered support rather than primary functions), I feel there’s a movement afoot to have me just act. Someone else has a degree that says they are more qualified than I am to design my class, in collaboration with me as the “content expert”. They want to do the writing, create the storyboard, tell me what the “best practices” are.

They are trying to turn me into Leonardo DiCaprio instead of Orson Welles. They want me to profess, to perform, to present, and that’s it. (They’ll record that, so my students can view it later. Others can set up a “course structure” around my performances.)

Well…that’s not OK. As a professor, I do not simply profess – I teach. All the decisions involved in teaching should be made by me. It’s not that I don’t understand the limitations (transferrability concerns, student learning outcomes), but beyond those limits the decisions about which materials to use, and how to use them, and what to have students do, and how to assess that, etc. etc. etc. should be mine. Doing those tasks are teaching.

She’s talking about online teaching in general, but this goes double for MOOCs in particular. Here’s Karen Head of Georgia Tech (who remains my hero for describing MOOC-making in such honest detail) describing the team for her composition MOOC:

I cannot imagine doing this alone. I’m joined by Rebecca Burnett, director of our Writing and Communication Program and the project’s co-principal investigator; Richard Utz, chair of the School of Literature, Media, and Communication; a group of 11 postdoctoral teaching fellows; plus several specialists in assessment, IT, intellectual-property law, and videography.

And that doesn’t count the representatives from Coursera! No superprofessor is going to be able to be Orson Wells in that environment. They’d be lucky to be Ed Wood.

Perhaps superprofessors are happy just being Leonardo DiCaprio. After all, Leonardo DiCaprio gets paid very, very well. However, all the money for those salaries has to come from somewhere. More importantly, the money for a price of the ticket to watch this blockbuster for credit won’t be going to the rest of us who aren’t part of this movie. This is from that no-bid contract expose that ran in IHE a while back:

San Jose State University, a high-profile hotbed of experimentation with MOOC providers, has a revenue-sharing agreement with Udacity to offer for-credit online classes. That arrangement was not publicly bid, San Jose spokeswoman Pat Harris said. The university signed a contract addendum in April. The university expects to receive $40 per student, though students paid $150 per class.

Leland Stanford, the original California entrepreneur, and his buddies didn’t get a deal that sweet.

In other words, MOOC providers are the piggy in the middle, sucking up tuition money that could be going back into the state universities that desperately need it. As Gerry Canavan explains it:

The same is true, albeit to a lesser extent, of the people hired on campus to design or implement MOOC-ification. Some of them really are extraordinarily smart, caring people who I consider to be among my online friends. Nevertheless, they have just as much self interest in promoting MOOC-ification as I do in promoting the self-interest of my colleagues in the professoriate. How come we never hear about that?

It’s not just bad publicity. It’s a power structure that favors technology over teaching, untenurable labor over the tenured kind and growth over dealing with the actual paying students that universities have now.

PS Holy moly! The entire Rutles “All You Need Is Cash” special is on YouTube! See you in about an hour.





“Alright Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”

18 06 2013

“It’s time for teachers to rethink learning methods. I invite everyone along for the exhilarating ride.”

– Anant Agarwal of edX, “Online universities: it’s time for teachers to join the revolution,” The Observer, June 15, 2013.

Since I’m all for edtech, I’ve decided to take up Anant Agarwal’s call and become a star. Reversing myself on everything that I’ve ever written in this space on this subject, I’ve begun planning my own MOOC. The name of my MOOC?:

Class Consciousness for College Professors.

Can you think of a more underserved population than us with respect to this subject? As I wrote last year, the professoriate is the worst guild ever, so even impersonal learning on this vital subject is better than none at all. Besides that (at least in my experience) nobody starts (and then doesn’t finish) more MOOCs than college professors. But this MOOC will be different. Instead of learning for learning sake, my MOOC will be all about understanding your own self-interest, something that few of us outside of our business schools seem to understand.

Here’s a tentative outline of my syllabus:

Week 1: Introduction to Dialectical Materialism

I’m not a Marxist, but I can play one on stage, screen or computer screen. I did read The Marx-Engels Reader back when I was in college so I can teach this stuff, right? After all, dialectical materialism simply means that class is a relationship. When some get more, others get less. You’d think everyone in academia would know this since faculty have been getting much less for years now, right? Alas no, but college professors are smart enough to figure this out even if the pedagogy behind the system I teach it to them with has so much to be desired.

Everyone says we’re a bunch of leftists anyway. Let’s earn that reputation for once. If I had my druthers, this where I’d assign Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital. On page 94, he explains the urgency of my whole endeavor:

“The destruction of craftmanship during the period of the rise of scientific management did not go unnoticed by workers. Indeed, as a rule workers are far more conscious of such a loss while it is being effected than after after it has taken place and the new conditions of production have become generalized.”

Too bad this is a MOOC, which means that I can’t assign any reading at all unless it’s beyond copyright protection. Even then, there’d be no guarantee that anyone in the class would actually read it. With their research and their lecturing and their service and their so-called “professional development,” college professors are such slackers.

Have you heard? They even get summers off.

Week 2: You Are a Worker

Here’s a subject I know well! I have a job. I get a paycheck. A few weeks ago I (along with a lot of other people) was informed that even though my performance last year “exceeds expectations,” the State of Colorado hasn’t got enough money to give me a merit pay raise. In other words, I have little control of the terms and conditions of my employment, yet I continually read stuff like this (3rd comment):

Just as doctors are dedicated to their patients, professors should be dedicated to their students not job security, a hippocratic oath for professors if you will. As such, arguments against MOOCs should only be based on student benefits/disadvantages.

Sure, some of us have families or medical problems or the need to eat…anything…ever. Yet they tell us we have to think of the children (as well as the adults going back to college) so that they can get real jobs in the new global economy rather than our lame dying ones. Therefore, being a college professor means you can’t travel or accumulate goods like every other American consumer does. Did I mention those summers off?

Silly me, I thought the invisible hand meant that everyone should pursue their own self interest and everything would work out OK. Indeed, since my working conditions are student learning conditions, I figured that I actually was acting in the best interests of my students by sticking up for myself. Happy profs = better teaching.

That’s why I want to be a superprofessor, so that I can spread my message of professorial unity throughout the world, unemploying as many other professors as possible in its wake. Hmmmm, I think I detect a contradiction here. Perhaps I can create a MOOC with a self-destruct mechanism in it.

Week 3: “I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me!”

In 1996, I worked with another grad student who was far more radical than I, but who was going to vote for Bob Dole in order to “accelerate the revolution.” That hasn’t worked out too well yet, but there’s no reason not to try this line of attack with MOOCs. A recent Chronicle piece entitled “Why We Fear MOOCs” is my inspiration here:

What is not often acknowledged, however, is how our understanding of college has created and reinforced rigid social distinctions in American life. In previous generations, it was abundantly clear who had attended college and who had not. College graduates might speak differently, have different pursuits (theater versus television, for example), travel more, or read more books. Attending college served as a clear marker of social class…

Thus, being college-educated does not simply signify that one has completed a task; it is a facet of one’s identity.

My identity shouldn’t be tied into where I teach or how I teach because the imminent academic proletarian revolution will simply wipe those distinctions away. Down with hierarchies of all kinds (including the one that allows me to put food on my table)! Who ever heard of a well-fed radical?

But what if the revolution never comes? What if MOOCs are just a way for the oligarchs to hang onto power during the age of permanent austerity? That’s when I’ll explain to my new vassals all the wonderful opportunities for personal growth in our glorious all-online future. If you can’t be a trained professional, you can still be a personal trainer. Sure, it’s not like you went to grad school for seven years in order to do that, but you have to learn to think like an “edu-preneur.”

Besides, you can still make good money as a trainer. Certainly more than being an adjunct. Which is a nice segue into Week 4…

Week 4: Meet Your Adjuncts.

You may not be an adjunct, but you certainly could have been. No matter what your discipline or where you went to graduate school, quirks of supply, demand or timing might have led to your adjunctification. As the irreplaceable William Pannapacker writes:

I have known too many extraordinarily talented and productive long-term adjuncts to believe that academe is a meritocracy. And I have known too many long-suffering academic-labor activists to believe that such people are enemies of higher education. They are often the only friends that a demoralized job seeker can find, the only ones who acknowledge that the inability to land a tenure-track position is not entirely the fault of the individual alone, that it is a systemic problem.

This may explain why the vast majority of tenure track faculty couldn’t pick their own adjuncts out of a lineup. We wouldn’t want anybody challenging our assumptions, would we?

To be fair, knowing my adjuncts is easy for me as we invite them to the (catered) introductory department meeting every year. However, as they tend to get the worst class times, I’m never on campus at the same time of some of them again. The lesson here is that you have to make the effort to build a relationship. Your adjuncts are too busy.

I’ll definitely use guest lecturers this week because I have so many fine people from from which to choose. Of course, I’ll pay them nothing because they’ll willingly work just for the exposure. After all, aren’t they just doing this out of love? If that’s not enough, they can put it on their cvs for next year’s job market. Of course, that won’t make a difference anyways since too many people think they’re already damaged goods. I’ll correct that impression during my MOOC.

Obviously this week’s assignment will be for everyone to go introduce themselves to their adjuncts. After that, peers in the class will quiz you on their names. What’s that you say? You want to know what happens if an adjunct signs up for my MOOC? That won’t be an issue because they already know the material backwards and forwards as they live the need for class consciousness every day.

Extra credit for saying “Hello” to them in the hall later.

Week 5: We Are at War Already

Did you actually read that Agarwal essay? It’s a direct shot at the bow of professorial class consciousness:

Moocs make education borderless, gender-blind, race-blind, class-blind and bank account-blind. Up to now, quality education – and in some cases, any higher education at all – has been the privilege of the few. Moocs have changed that. Anyone with an internet connection can have access. We hear from thousands of students, many in under-served, developing countries, about how grateful they are for this education.

Race, class, gender and nationality all in the same paragraph! How can we let our petty concerns (like eating or retiring someday) get in the way of ending every social problem of our time? Of course, if we educate everybody everywhere and do nothing to change the structural injustices of the global economy, everybody but the luckiest few will remain in the exact same position before MOOCification began. My MOOC will fix that problem by teaching professors to teach students to help themselves. Of course, if they do it through MOOCs they’ll be cutting the throats of their fellow professors, at least until the real revolution comes. A good revolutionary doesn’t bother with internal consistency.

Then there’s Agarwal’s absolute enormous straw man argument about what MOOCs aim to replace:

Students have always been critical of large lecture halls where they are talked at, and declining lecture attendance is the result. But today we see that there is deep educational value in interactive learning, both online and in the classroom. Colleges and universities are beginning to use Moocs to make blended courses where online videos replace lectures, and class time is spent interacting with the professor, teaching staff and other students.

I’ll let Audrey Watters give him the history of edtech speech if she’s so inclined. What I’m interested in is the way that Agarwal conflates giant lecture halls with the entirety of higher education. He knows that’s wrong. We know that’s wrong. Even if we have 500 students in a class, we can still flip our classrooms anytime we want to without having to use somebody else’s content. If you won’t let somebody else pick your textbook for you, why on earth would you outsource your own content? What did you spend all those years in graduate school for then?

This piece is so out of touch with reality that it makes me think that the whole pitch isn’t really directed at professors or teachers at all. It’s pure public relations, designed to get angry torch-bearing mobs appearing outside university buildings demanding fresh non-superprofessors to satiate their lust for blood. Or maybe it’s a superprofessor recruiting pitch because as a pitch for victims suckers MOOC consumers it’s really weak tea.

Week 6: The Futility of MOOCs

You’ve heard of the MOOC to end all MOOCs?I’ve decided that the only way to match the tremendous reach of MOOCs is to use a MOOC to teach the futility of MOOCs. Don’t believe me? 90% dropout rates should be your first clue. To quote Rebecca Raphael:

“There is simply no way to mass-scale the real attention of another human being.”

Who cares if not everybody gets this lesson because it’s being mass-scaled. Professors are smart people. They can figure it out for themselves, right? And if they don’t, they’ll be going the way of the dodo soon anyway.

Too sum up then (à la Ian Bogost):

1. MOOCs are futile as teaching tools.
2. This is a MOOC.
3. Therefore, this MOOC is futile.

OK…nevermind. I guess I’ll just accept my upcoming obsolescence like a good cog in the machine. I wish I had a mansion and a crazy German butler to help assuage the disappointment, but I’ll have to make do with once having been big in Connecticut.





The end of the line.

13 02 2012

I think I need to take back my previous criticism of Jonathan Franzen. The more I read about e-books the more serious I take the problem of permanence, which is the basis of his critique. Here, for example, is Nick Carr:

Because it lacks the necessity and the fixity of a print run, e-publishing once again can become an ongoing process rather than an event, which is likely to change the perceptions of writers and their collaborators. And when you change your perception of what you’re creating, you will also change how you create it. I think it’s fair to say that these kinds of shifts are subtle and play out over a long time, but in some ways the erosion of the sense of a written work’s completeness and self-containment may ultimately change literature as much as the underlying technological changes.

Last week, I snuck in one last paragraph into the book I wrote that’s coming out in September. While I thought that this new stuff really helped, I had to double-pinky-swear to my publisher that I wouldn’t do it again as they need to get a whole series of technical steps done in order to make their pre-publication deadlines. While some might be celebrating the ability to tinker with their work forever, I’m delighted to be done with it (except for the copy editing). I want to move on to the next project, not constantly rethink my old one forever. I’ve reached the end of the line.

What happens though if that line disappears entirely? Think of the possible abuses by publishers against authors that could come from constantly tinkering with books after they’ve been published. They could contractually obligate you to revise everything every couple of years. Isn’t that one of the most important reasons why everyone hates textbooks? If they mess with just a few of your words, would you even notice?

Your most devoted readers will. How do you teach a book that’s constantly changing? Aren’t Star Wars geeks everywhere viciously abusing George Lucas these days for messing with his movies thirty years after he released them? Why should it be any different with books?





“Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!”

9 01 2012

If you didn’t recognize the “disaster of biblical proportions” reference in the last couple of posts, it was indeed from Ghostbusters. In the scene above, that awful man from the EPA turned off Spengler’s ghost-trapping machine and the Ghostbusters are trying to explain to the mayor what’s about to happen as a result.

I love Ghostbusters for many reasons, but only in my most recent viewing did I realize that they were all failed academics. Toward the beginning of the film, there’s this great part where the dean comes in and kicks them off campus. [Obviously, they weren't tenured.] Therefore, I don’t even need to change much to make my extended Ghostbusters analogy fit online education.

Who, you might ask, is the equivalent of that awful man from the EPA in academia? I’ll go with Ayn Rand. Seriously, I don’t think anybody would ever have dreamed of bringing online classes to public higher education in America if it weren’t for gigantic cuts to state funding brought on by people with too much money who are desperate to keep even more. Their kids, after all, will never be learning online. That’s just for poor people who don’t need to understand the past for their future lives of service to our corporate overlords.

The setup of online courses is practically guaranteed to keep things that way. Another thing I learned at that AHA session last week is that you can’t test online students about historical facts because they can always Google anything. This is indeed strangely reminiscent of Nick Carr’s famous article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” but you don’t have to buy Carr’s premise in order to understand the problem here.

Suppose I want to quiz my online students on facts they learned on the web sites I sent them to throughout a particular section of the course. They have 15 minutes to finish the quiz. In the same time they can write what they actually learned, they can open up another tab on their browser, Google the question and write the answer whether they learned it when they were supposed to or not. As a college professor, I’m well aware that there are a lot more important things to learn in a good history class than a lot specific facts. However, I’ve also been involved in the TAH program for long enough to appreciate the benefits of historical knowledge for promoting good citizenship.

Moreover, students need to learn at least some facts, otherwise they won’t have any history at their disposal to analyze. I always tell my survey students that history is actually pretty easy when you realize that you can always remember the facts that you find most interesting in order to answer my very broad questions. Online history class, therefore, is like taking every test open-book. I’m not sure this means that Google is making us stupid, but it certainly decreases the incentive for history students to commit any historical facts to memory.

I think this kind of ignorance is going to haunt us all during our glorious online future. With the Ghostbusters struggling outside of academia along with the rest of us faculty, who we gonna call then?





An Elvis analogy.

27 12 2011

In her year-end post, our pal Kate mentions my fondness for historical analogies. Her historical analogy in that post is union musicians protesting their replacement in movie theaters by pre-recorded tracks.  While I love that story, I’m not sure it’s a good analogy for edtech as it has a happy ending. Theater owners (who were mostly the Hollywood studios at that time) make money, customers get cheaper movie tickets and the musicians’ union didn’t disband because there were still plenty of places for them to play live music. Indeed, I suspect if you work for the local in Nashville, LA or Vegas, you can make a fair chunk of change as a union musician still.

Speaking of Vegas, I was on my way to Christmas in Vegas with the family (not a bad idea at all, really) when I first read Kate’s post.  In honor of that trip, I was reading Peter Guralnick’s Careless Love:  The Unmaking of Elvis Presley. That’s the second volume of a two-volume biography of THE KING.  The first book, which I read years ago, is quite wonderful for understanding just how important Elvis was musically. The second is mostly depressing, like Nick Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, but still a great read.

I don’t remember most of them, but it’s clear from the book that Elvis movies are almost all pretty awful. Guralnick blames Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker, for that mostly. Early in the book, Guralnick explains the way Elvis’ contracts were structured.  Elvis made between $750,000 and $1,000,000 per picture.  That was almost as much as Hollywood’s top star at the time, Elizabeth Taylor.  But then Elvis and Parker split 50% of everything the picture made after it earned back its costs.  Since the kiddies were going to see Elvis in anything he did, that gave Elvis every incentive to make his pictures as fast and as slipshod as possible.  The scripts were awful (Elvis played a race-car driver in three different movies), the music was often ill-chosen and he certainly never got a chance to develop as an actor.

So who did this hurt?  Elvis, of course.  Not financially. He made lots of money, but doing nothing but acting in movies with dumb stories and recording soundtrack albums with bad songs on them made him miserable.  This is Guralnick, p. 207:

“It was clear that he himself was neither interested in, nor satisfied with, the music that was being released in his name, and for all the Colonel’s pep talks and recitations of figures and numbers, and deals, there was no getting past the fact that the records were no longer selling as they once had , they no longer mattered as they used to.  He admired the Beatles, he felt threatened by the Beatles, sometimes it made him angry how disrespectful the Beatles and Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones were toward the public and their fans – but most of all he was envious of the freedom they evidently seemed to feel and to flaunt.  He, too, had once enjoyed that freedom, he, too, had once been in the vanguard of the revolution, and now he was embarrassed to listen to his own music, to watch his own films.”

In case you’re wondering where I’m going with this, professors are Elvis. Students could be our adoring fans, but they’re being encouraged by the Colonel to demand the same bad movies over and over again.  Take this particular money-making idea, for example:

MyEdu is an online tool aimed at helping students better plan and manage their college experience. It was originally founded in 2008 as Pick-a-Prof, a website that allowed students to rate their professors; the following year the Internet startup was rebranded as MyEdu and its mission became more comprehensive. Through tools that track students’ course requirements each semester, provide detailed degree planning and rate faculty members, the site aims to improve students’ return on education by increasing graduation rates and decreasing the time it takes to earn a diploma.

“Going to college is much like investing in your portfolio; you have to keep an eye on how much return you’re getting on your education investment,” says Frank Lyman, MyEdu’s senior vice president.

Is this really what we want to teach them?  Now that President Romney has promised all our students jobs when they graduate, they’re going to end up being insufferable. Is going to college a good idea if you go for the wrong reasons?  Here’s Guralnick quoting Elvis (p. 468) looking back on his film career, before the pills eventually killed him:

“It was a job.  I had to be there at a certain time in the morning and work a certain amount of hours, and that’s exactly how I treated it.”

I think professors and students alike could learn a lot from Elvis’ experience. If you do what you love for the wrong reasons you will no longer love it.





The way of the dodo.

6 12 2011

You saw “WALL-E,” right? Everybody always gushes about the first forty minutes or so, the part set on the trashed future earth which feels like a Buster Keaton movie. My favorite part of the movie, however, takes place on that orbiting space colony of obese consumers. It’s when the captain runs a bit of dirt that dropped off WALL-E through the ship’s computer and as he gets the computer to define these terms he’s never heard of before, the computer gradually explains what earth used to be like. The captain then becomes determined to take his hover-chair bound passengers back to their home planet because of his growing obsession with dancing, farming and especially pizza. While a film about how awful it is to trash the earth isn’t all that radical in this day and age, a film about how we lose essential knowledge by letting technology do everything for us really is.

I thought of my favorite scene from WALL-E when I read Tenured Radical’s post about the need for the post office near Zenith to offer a sample filled-out envelope in order to illustrate to students there how to properly address snail mail:

This helpful aide, undoubtedly invented by our Zenith postal clerks in response to incoherently addressed envelopes, has truly convinced me that the US Postal Service will die. It has been generationally lapped by the digital world and it may, in fact, simply disappear as an institution in my lifetime.

That would be a shame, as despite the increasing percentage of junk mail in my mail box over the last few years, real hand-written letters do have their quaint charms. So does e-mail, the danger to which I can attest to from direct experience. Indeed, I have to come close to threatening my now 18-year-old daughter with bodily harm in order to get her to check her inbox despite the fact that that’s the way that her college acceptance letters are going to be delivered any day now.

In a similar vein, the nice folks at New Faculty Majority alerted me to this rather cute meme on Twitter that imagines a world where pencils are re-introduced into school classrooms as a new technology. This is from a blog post that breaks that 140 character wall:

Then there are the objections from the Tax Payers Alliance, and other pressure groups who have even gone on to the local TV station to complain that we are being irresponsible, and are wasting valuable tax payers money on purchasing a pencil for every child. ‘In my day’, said the TPA spokeperson, ‘we used slates and styluses, and shared them around, and we were happy. One pencil per child is simply a gimmick’. To be blunt, I think they are missing the point. I strongly believe that pencils are the future of learning, and the more untethered they are, the greater will be the flexibility of learning for all subjects across the curriculum.

Don’t you think it’s funny that in all this talk about progress, nobody in the edtech world wants to think about what is getting lost? Maybe we can we keep a “seed” bank somewhere so that we can revive perfectly good education ideas after they go extinct, the same way that those hover-chair people in WALL-E learned how to walk again.

The terrible thing about species extinctions is, of course, that they’re never coming back. As I understand it, after the last dodo died in 1662, people doubted whether such a creature ever even existed. Only after Lewis Carroll put one in Alice in Wonderland did the dodo begin to find its now firmly-entrenched spot in western culture as a symbol for extinction. Too bad there weren’t even any stuffed dodos left to give people a feel for what the world had actually lost.

If you pay close attention to the movie, you’ll see that the kids on that colony in WALL-E are being taught by a machine. I think the one line that their robot teacher delivers is something like, “Buy ‘n Large is your best friend.” Will that be on the (inevitably standardized) test?

I wonder if we as a society will remember enough about how teaching used to be in order to do it well again after education becomes the exclusive online purview of the Buy ‘n Large Corporation.








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